Smog Rules and Hazy Reporting

The Obama White House made (yet another) move bound to disappoint progressive activists. But good luck trying to get corporate media to explain the impact.

Here’s how the September 3 New York Times piece by John Broder started off:

WASHINGTON — President Obama abandoned a contentious new air pollution rule on Friday, buoying business interests that had lobbied heavily against it, angering environmentalists who called the move a betrayal and unnerving his own top environmental regulators.

The president rejected a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals, saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.

Business groups and Republicans in Congress had complained that meeting the new standard, which governs emissions of so-called ground-level ozone, would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

So this new standard would lead to HUNDREDS of thousands of lost jobs? Wow. That’s a powerful argument against it. Where does that figure come from? Is it correct? The Times is of no help–“balance” requires that both sides get a hearing, no matter the details.

But a little history would be helpful. Similar claims were made during 1997 debates about provisions of the Clean Air Act; as this Center for American Progress report demonstrated, the massive job losses that industry warned about are difficult to spot.

Broder was back on the job-killing beat on September 5, writing (along with Motoko Rich) a piece with this lead:

Do environmental regulations kill jobs?

The answer would seem to be more yes than no. “Republicans and business groups say yes,” readers learn–and the next paragraph says, “Many economists agree that regulation comes with undeniable costs that can affect workers.”

A third group, meanwhile, has a different take: “But many experts say that the effects should be assessed through a nuanced tally of costs and benefits that takes into account both economic and societal factors.” That sounds sensible. The article goes on:

For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency first proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing acid rain caused by power plant emissions, the electric utility industry warned that they would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs. But the cost of the program has been closer to $1 billion, said Dallas Burtraw, an economist at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research group on the environment. And the EPA, in a paper published this year, cited studies showing that the law had been a modest net creator of jobs through industry spending on technology to comply with it.

That’s actually helpful–and might lead one to dismiss industry claims. Which might be why the piece goes on to note that “House Republicans say the administration is engaged in a spasm of rule-making that is retarding the nation’s economy and exacerbating persistently high unemployment,” before inevitably winding its way back to the “middle”:

Finding a middle ground is difficult, especially in the midst of heated political wrangling over how to cope with the sputtering economy. Businesses are focusing almost entirely on the costs. Environmental groups, meanwhile, tally up the benefits without paying much heed to the costs.

The piece actually does a pretty good job of explaining why we shouldn’t really believe industry complaints about job losses–they’ve exaggerated in the past, and there’s little to show that they’re not doing the same now. Journalists searching for the “middle ground” do little to clarify such debates.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.